Speaking the truth to power is always a risky business. No more so than when considering how millions of pounds of public money should be shovelled into developments and contracts.
Local government overview & scrutiny has been with us since the Local Government Act 2000 and the advent of the cabinet system and executive mayors. In the case of executive mayors – a single politician making the decisions to spend millions of pounds of public money albeit with the advice of officers and an appointed cabinet – it is easy to see how local councillors could feel disempowered if they are not allowed a proper say on the decisions taken. Overview and scrutiny committees can provide a proactive, pre-decision mechanism for proper political involvement and public engagement. This scrutiny system improves and refines decisions, weeds out poor proposals and advances evidence-based policies.
Good council scrutiny can also allow for challenge to government too. Following the roll-out of austerity and public spending cuts led a review of the London Borough of Lewisham’s emergency services which reported in 2013.
The review showed that significant funding cuts had put services under severe strain, with an impact on preventative services and areas like probation too.
The process allowed for proper scrutiny of these changes both by the council and external public agencies and, during the review, Lewisham Council successfully challenged Jeremy Hunt, secretary of state for health over the proposed closure of Lewisham hospital’s A&E department.
An example of proactive scrutiny came after the tragic Grenfell Tower fire. All housing authorities rightly reviewed their housing stock and hopefully their policies. As a matter of urgency, I wrote to Barry Quirk the then chief executive of Lewisham council to ask that a fire and risk assessment be made of all tall buildings and I invited the borough’s fire commander to address us to give the public and the council the assurances it needed.
Party politics will, of course, play a part in any local government setting and it is naive to think that elected politicians forget their party in scrutiny. But, as a recent Communities & Local Government Select Committee report on local authority scrutiny says, council leaderships have a responsibility to foster an environment that welcomes constructive challenge and debate. I have always held that scrutiny meetings can provide a platform to explain and publicise good policy initiatives and challenge assumptions or ‘group think’. Let’s imagine the alternative – complete, untrammelled power of the executive.
Instructing scrutiny members how to vote and threatening them with the whip does not foster the constructive challenge we need. Scrutiny committee members need to be able to hold their cabinet colleagues to account.
But if proper scrutiny is to play a full part in effective local government, we will need a culture shift. The scrutiny process – sometimes seen as the trainspotting of the council world – needs to be valued every bit as much as executive decision-making. This parity of esteem should mean getting access to the resources needed to do the job – including professional and independent advice.
The Financial Reporting Council and the Institute of Chartered Secretaries & Administrators advise that a company’s board should make funds available to their audit committee to enable it to take independent legal, accounting or other advice when the audit committee reasonably believes it necessary to do so. However, scrutiny committees have no such right. Indeed I have requested independent legal advice in the past and an eminent QC has given an opinion supporting a refusal of this request. I believe this change would help proper scrutiny when a council’s legal officers are advising the executive on hugely complex and controversial developments and contracts. It would solve an inherent conflict of interest.
Meanwhile, the government has responded positively to the select committee’s recommendations that overview and scrutiny committees should report to their full councils and not just the executive and that officers should provide impartial and professional advice. That after 18 years of local government scrutiny these recommendations need to be made at all is telling. There is a long way to go before there is anything like parity of esteem between the executive and scrutiny functions.
I helped pilot scrutiny arrangements in Lewisham in 2001 and more recently I am pleased to have had the endorsement of Lord Kennedy – and, somewhat to my surprise a government minister Lord Young – when I led the questioning of a compulsory purchase order around Millwall Football Club’s ground in South East London. The lesson I have learnt is that scrutiny is best when gathering evidence from beyond the usual officers and paid advisors. In the words of an Ofsted inspector who I gave evidence to recently: “Triangulate – don’t only listen to your officers.”
Council scrutiny is a crucial part of our local democracy. It benefits councils and residents alike, contributing to better decisions, better use of public resources, better public engagement and – ultimately – better services.